Mill Creek councilman invites unvaccinated officers to apply

Police said a staffing shortage could become a crisis. So the City Council approved hiring bonuses.

Vincent Cavaleri (City of Mill Creek)

Vincent Cavaleri (City of Mill Creek)

MILL CREEK — Amid a staffing shortage Mill Creek police say has left their department “desperate,” a city councilmember is inviting unvaccinated officers to apply for the agency’s open positions.

Councilman Vincent Cavaleri advertised in a Facebook post last week that Mill Creek “will not be mandating a vaccine to anyone of our personnel” and offered to “fast track” the lateral move of those interested in the jobs.

He made the post on Oct. 18 — a date he referred to as “execution day” — the deadline for tens of thousands of workers to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Cavaleri, who recently announced on social media that he’s running for Congress, said in an interview that the recruitment post is part of an “all-hands-on-deck outreach mission” to hire sorely needed officers and protect public safety in his community.

“We will not discriminate against anybody else who wants to come here,” he told The Daily Herald.

He’s one of a growing number of officials statewide who are pitching local law enforcement openings to officers who have lost their jobs for declining the shot. Agencies are resorting to the tactic as qualified candidates become increasingly hard to find in the field, which many people are choosing to leave because of anti-police sentiment and criminal justice reform laws.

“It’s no picnic to be a cop anymore. So we are having trouble recruiting young people,” Cavaleri said. “It’s not over by a long shot. It’s going to get worse.”

‘Verge of Collapse’

As of Tuesday, nearly 2,000 state workers had quit or been terminated because they did not comply with the governor’s order. The total includes employees of the Washington State Patrol and Department of Corrections. The State Patrol lost 127 workers, 74 of them commissioned officers and 53 of them civil servants.

Marysville Police Chief Erik Scairpon has encouraged unvaccinated state troopers to apply for about a dozen open positions at the agency he oversees.

Across the state, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office last week posted a recruitment video on Twitter with the tagline, “NO Mandatory Vaccinations Required.”

If the lack of a vaccine mandate isn’t enough, perhaps experienced officers will be enticed by the generous hiring bonuses the Mill Creek Police Department and many agencies are offering to those who have worked in the field.

On Oct. 5, the Mill Creek City Council approved a union agreement to award bonuses of up to $20,000 to new hires with prior law enforcement experience.

The city administration first introduced a measure that would have provided an extra $10,000 to so-called “lateral hires.” But the council approved the higher amount after a plea from the Mill Creek Police Officers’ Guild, whose leaders said the staffing shortage had become “dire” because of city leadership’s “neglect and mismanagement.”

“We are on the verge of collapse and without immediate and serious action by the city, our service levels are about to decline drastically,” Officer Steve Smith, vice president of the guild, said in a letter to the council.

“When I was hired in 2006, our population was approximately 14,000 and we had 26 officers. Our population is now well over 20,000 and we are now down to 19 officers,” Smith said in the letter, which he read at the Oct. 5 meeting.

Three officers are currently in the process of leaving, which will bring that number down to 16, he said.

“One is moving out of state. One is leaving to a local department with no hiring bonus and a lower salary. One is quitting law enforcement altogether,” Smith said.

With few employees left to cover shifts if scheduled officers take time off, response times could increase, police warned the council.

“There have even been times that there was only one officer on duty to cover the entire city,” Smith said, “because there was simply no one left to help cover shifts.”

When fully staffed, the department has 23 officers, city spokeswoman Jody Hawkins said in an email.

“Currently, the Police Department has three vacancies to fill,” Hawkins said. “Until June 2021, there was one detective vacancy. More recently, there has been one corporal and one sergeant vacancy. Aside from these three, the City has not received any other resignations from the 20 officers currently on staff.”

‘Hiring and Recruitment’

Smith blamed the staffing shortage on City Manager Michael Ciaravino, who has faced harsh criticism in the past for reportedly mistreating city staff.

After a senior sergeant resigned last spring, in part because of the problems at the department, guild leadership warned Ciaravino more departures would follow, Smith said. The guild emphasized the need to recruit lateral officers, who require less training than entry-level candidates and can start patrolling sooner.

But Ciaravino expressed concerns the city would inherit “problem officers” if it hired officers from other departments, according to the guild.

Ciaravino said in an Oct. 12 news release that the city “has expedited its recruitment and hiring efforts” by advertising the open jobs more, assessing a list of potential recruits and interviewing candidates for one of the vacancies.

A new recruitment video is in the works, too, Ciaravino told the council at its Oct. 12 meeting. The city administration is also evaluating a list of other options to speed the hiring process, as suggested by Police Chief Jeff Young, the city manager said.

Under the new hiring incentives agreement, the size of the bonus for any lateral hires will depend on how long the recruit has worked in law enforcement. Officers will be eligible for $10,000 for one to three years of experience, $15,000 for three to six years of experience and $20,000 for more than six years of experience.

The city administration is working with the guild to “finalize and execute” the agreement, according to the news release.

‘Core Principles’

Cavaleri, a corrections deputy for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said he doesn’t like to see fellow men and women in uniform “on the breadline” because of the governor’s vaccine mandate.

“You shouldn’t be forced to choose between feeding your family and violating your core principles,” he said.

Gov. Inslee has said his mandate, which allows for some exemptions, will help end the pandemic quicker and protect residents who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

But Cavaleri believes the requirement is a civil liberties violation, no matter why someone is declining the vaccine.

On Sept. 28, Cavaleri proposed a resolution against “vaccine passports” or other requirements for staff or citizens to show any proof of immunizations. He drew parallels between vaccine mandates, apartheid and Nazi Germany.

Mill Creek doesn’t have a policy to require vaccinations for employees or anyone else who visits City Hall. And the council has no plans to make such a rule.

“This is a problem looking for a solution,” said Mayor Brian Holtzclaw, who voted against the resolution alongside the five other members of the council.

Mayor Pro Tem Stephanie Vignal said the discussion was “offensive,” “divisive” and unhelpful to residents and businesses struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

There is widespread medical evidence the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective at saving lives.

But Cavaleri has vocal supporters in Mill Creek, where residents have protested mask mandates and rallied behind police in response to nationwide movements to “defund” law enforcement.

He also recently introduced another measure to the council urging state leaders to clarify a package of police reform laws Inslee signed in May to bolster accountability and limit law enforcement’s use of force.

Backers of the new laws say the policies are ultimately meant to reduce the number of people who die because of police brutality. Policing agencies across the state, however, have protested that the statutes have unintended consequences and severely limit officers’ ability to keep the public safe.

Cavaleri’s proposed resolution resembles others passed by cities such as Everett, Marysville, Lake Stevens and Arlington. It was on the agenda for the Mill Creek council’s Oct. 12 meeting. Then Holtzclaw asked to postpone the discussion to the next meeting to give city leaders time to consult with local lawmakers who support the new laws.

Democratic state Reps. April Berg and John Lovick, both of Mill Creek, wanted a chance to address the city’s concerns, said the mayor.

“They wanted to have that discussion before we consider that resolution,” Holtzclaw said. “Which I thought was fair.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Vincent Cavaleri is a corrections deputy for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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